Tag Archives: Plutarch

Ancient vs. Modern Biographies: Didn’t Bultmann Know the Difference?

While reading Michael Licona’s recent book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?, I came upon this little nugget.

[Richard] Burridge and [Graham] Gould say Bultmann was correct in asserting that the Gospels do not look anything like modern biography. What Bultmann neglected to observe, however, is that neither do any other ancient biographies. Differing from modern biography, which is a product of the nineteenth century, ancient biographical conventions provided authors a license to depart from the degree of precision in reporting that many of us moderns prefer. (Licona 2016, p. 5, emphasis mine)

Is that true? Did Rudolf Bultmann really not know the differences between a modern biography and an ancient biography? Further, did he embarrass himself in public by confusing the two while no one until the late twentieth century dared to speak up? And finally, is it possible that Vizzini was smarter than the classical Greek philosophers?


If you’ve read a lot of modern scholarship, you might think that. Still, you may have a lingering, nagging suspicion that Bultmann might have known better. After all, students of his generation would have read Greek and Latin classics while attending the gymnasium. And it seems hard to believe he wouldn’t have had a passing familiarity with the longstanding debates around historiography, and the fact that ancient authors of βίοι had far different goals in mind compared to modern biographers. read more »

How and Why Plutarch Expanded His “Lives”

In his recent book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?, Michael Licona struggles to show that we skeptics make far too much of the differences in the canonical gospels. Many of these differences, he argues, result from ordinary compositional devices typically used by authors of Greco-Roman biographies.

This volume will pursue the identification of several techniques employed in the writing of ancient history and biography that can be gleaned from compositional textbooks and inferred from observations of the differences in how Plutarch reported the same events in nine of his Lives. We will also observe how the employment of these techniques by the evangelists would result in precisely the types of differences we often observe in the Gospels. (Licona, 2017, Location 268, Kindle Edition)

Licona’s methodology, such as it is, invites us to concentrate our attention on actions as mere techniques. Imagine, for example, watching a large truck barreling down a multilane highway at great speed, then swerving for some reason. Now imagine a bicyclist riding down a country path, then swerving for some reason. Since NT scholars “know” that a bicycle is really just a truck, can we infer that swerving is just some sort of “driving technique” employed by all truckers?

Motiveless motion?

Perhaps not. Maybe the key is not to focus on the act, but on the motives. When we ask the truck driver, he may tell us that he was trying to avoid a deer, while the bicyclist may explain that she hit a rock lying in the path. Our superficial concentration on the event with the truck tells us nothing of consequence with respect to the adventure of the solitary cyclist. read more »

One Key Difference between Gospels and an Ancient Biography

I post here a reply, slightly edited, that I offered in response to a comment by Chris S on Tim’s recent post, What’s the Difference Between a History and a Biography? I think it addresses an important difference that I think is commonly found to exist between our canonical gospels and many ancient biographies. So thanks to Chris S for opening up the opportunity for this discussion.

Ancient histories and biographies are topics I continue to study and learn more about each year and there are recent scholarly publications on ancient biographies I am still trying to catch up with. So I will confine myself in this comment to just one aspect of Chris S’s point. He poses as the Devil’s or God’s Advocate, and I like that. He wrote, in part:

For example, I’m looking at the life of Camillus in my “Great Books” volume of Plutarch. I can’t find a single source identification whatsoever. I see at one point Plutarch begins an anecdote with “Some say…” At another point (p. 116) he provides two different versions of a conflict, in which he names no sources, begins the second by saying that “the general stream of writers prefer the other account,” and makes no personal judgment on whether he agrees with the majority opinion. Not especially rigorous the handling of sources in this case.

And regardless of what we might ultimately conclude the Gospels actually are, IMHO leaving out the scholarly apparatus makes total sense on the hypothesis that they were intended as biographies for mass consumption. (my formatting)

There are abundant indicators of fictional embellishment in Plutarch’s life of Camillus, but there is something else with no counterpart in the canonical gospels until we reach Luke 1:1. Unlike the evangelists, Plutarch frequently drops in casual hints that he is indeed relying upon sources for his narrative, either oral or written. I realize I am copying English translation (Project Gutenberg’s) so do correct my references if their originals are not accurately represented or if there are expressions in the gospels lending themselves to equivalent translations. Examples:

Among the many remarkable things that are related of Furius Camillus . . .

During his censorship one very good act of his is recorded . . .

as great a prodigy as the most incredible that are reported . . .

It is said that the prince of the Tuscans was at that very time at sacrifice . . . But this may look like a fable. . . .

and the statue, they say, answered in a low voice . . . Other wonders of the like nature, drops of sweat seen to stand on statues, groans heard from them, the figures seen to turn round and to close their eyes, are recorded by many ancient historians; and we ourselves could relate divers wonderful things, which we have been told by men of our own time, that are not lightly to be rejected; but to give too easy credit to such things, or wholly to disbelieve them, is equally dangerous . . .

The Gauls are of the Celtic race, and are reported to have been compelled by their numbers to leave their country . . .

He that first brought wine among them and was the chief instigator of their coming into Italy is said to have been one Aruns . . .

The question of unlucky days, whether we should consider any to be so, and whether Heraclitus did well in upbraiding Hesiod for distinguishing them into fortunate and unfortunate, as ignorant that the nature of every day is the same, I have examined in another place . . .

Thargelion was a very unfortunate month to the barbarians, for in it Alexander overcame Darius’s generals on the Granicus; and the Carthaginians, on the twenty-fourth, were beaten by Timoleon in Sicily, on which same day and month Troy seems to have been taken, as Ephorus, Callisthenes, Damastes, and Phylarchus state. . . .

Plutarch cites no sources for what are surely well-known events from the world of “historical memory”, Alexander’s defeat of Darius and Timoleon’s defeat of the Carthaginians. But when he introduces a detail from the Trojan war Plutarch changes tack and introduces sources to back up a claim that might otherwise be questioned for its provenance in the world of gods and mythical heroes.

I am not ignorant, that, . . .

One could reckon up several that have had variety of fortune on the same day. . . . But I have discussed this more accurately in my Roman Questions.

Some write that . . . . Others say that . . . . The most common opinion was, that . . . others say that . . . . telling a story how that . . . . But they who profess to know more of the matter affirm that . . . . However it be . . . .

if, indeed, it can be supposed probable that an exact chronological statement has been preserved of events which were themselves the cause of chronological difficulties about things of later date. . . . Heraclides Ponticus, who lived not long after these times, in his book upon the Soul, relates that a certain report came from the west, that an army, proceeding from the Hyperboreans, had taken a Greek city called Rome, seated . . . . Aristotle the philosopher appears to have heard a correct statement of the taking of the city by the Gauls, but he calls its deliverer Lucius. . . . But this is a matter of conjecture.

Notice again that Plutarch introduces sympathy with the reader who might question the historical accuracy of something that might seem to be too neat to derive from reality. read more »

What’s the Difference Between a History and a Biography?



Because so many NT scholars desperately want the gospels to be both Greco-Roman biographies and reliable histories, we could almost forget that these two forms of literature are not the same. You don’t have to take my word for it. Here’s what Plutarch said:

It being my purpose to write the lives of Alexander the king, and of Caesar, by whom Pompey was destroyed, the multitude of their great actions affords so large a field that I were to blame if I should not by way of apology forewarn my reader that I have chosen rather to epitomize the most celebrated parts of their story, than to insist at large on every particular circumstance of it. It must be borne in mind that my design is not to write histories, but lives.

And the most glorious exploits do not always furnish us with the clearest discoveries of virtue or vice in men; sometimes a matter of less moment, an expression or a jest, informs us better of their characters and inclinations, than the most famous sieges, the greatest armaments, or the bloodiest battles whatsoever.

Therefore as portrait-painters are more exact in the lines and features of the face, in which the character is seen, than in the other parts of the body, so I must be allowed to give my more particular attention to the marks and indications of the souls of men, and while I endeavour by these to portray their lives, may be free to leave more weighty matters and great battles to be treated of by others. (Plutarch’s Alexander [emphasis and reformatting mine])

We could boil these comments down into the following points. A biography: read more »

Michael Licona Asks, “Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?”

[Edit: When first published, this post credited Michael Bird instead of Michael Licona for this book. I can’t explain it, other than a total brain-fart, followed by the injudicious use of mass find-and-replace. My apologies to everyone. –Tim]

We have to dig deep to find something nice to say about Michael R. Licona’s new book, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels? Perhaps the best thing I can come up with is that he didn’t insert the word apparent to soften the blow. Other apologists will tell us why we needn’t worry about “apparent differences” or “seeming contradictions.” Not Licona. He acknowledges the differences and says he wants to find out how they got there.

Poor Ancient Historians

In his foreword, Craig Evans notes the variations among the evangelists and asks:

How is this to be explained? Should these discrepancies be regarded as errors? Were the Gospel writers poor historians? Have they told the truth about Jesus?

Such is the strange and mysterious world of NT scholarship. How can we explain these bizarre questions?

According to some of today’s most prolific writers in biblical scholarship, the evangelists — the authors of the canonical gospels — were historians and writers of Greco-Roman biographies. They reach these conclusions via embarrassingly obvious cherry-picking, which leaves them with a pile of incongruous evidence, which they feel compelled to explain away. read more »

One Difference Between a “True” Biography and a Fictional (Gospel?) Biography

With the gospels in mind and thinking of them (for sake of argument) as biographical accounts of Jesus, how can we know if an ancient biography is about a genuinely historical person or if it is about a fictional character?

Let’s leave aside for now the claims of postmodernists who argue that there is no essential difference between histories and novels, between autobiography and fictional works. Enough historians and scholars of literature, at least to my satisfaction, have knocked these arguments down.

Many of us are familiar with the analysis of Richard Burridge that concludes that the gospels are of the same genre as ancient “bioi” (I’ll use the familiar term “biography”). The responses to Burridge’s arguments by Tim and me are collated here.

Before we take up the explanation, let’s look at some extracts from ancient biographers.

Biographer #1

Here is a passage about Socrates by Diogenes Laertius:

It was thought that he [Socrates] helped Euripides to make his plays; hence Mnesimachus writes:

This new play of Euripides is The Phrygians; and
Socrates provides the wood for frying.

And again he calls Euripides “an engine riveted by Socrates.” And Callias in The Captives:

a. Pray why so solemn, why this lofty air?
b. I’ve every right; I’m helped by Socrates.

. . . . . 

According to some authors he was a pupil of Anaxagoras, and also of Damon, as Alexander states in his Successions of Philosophers. When Anaxagoras was condemned, he became a pupil of Archelaus the physicist; Aristoxenus asserts that Archelaus was very fond of him. Duris makes him out to have been a slave and to have been employed on stonework, and the draped figures of the Graces on the Acropolis have by some been attributed to him. . . . . 

He was formidable in public speaking, according to Idomeneus; moreover, as Xenophon tells us, the Thirty forbade him to teach the art of words. And Aristophanes attacks him in his plays for making the worse appear the better reason. For Favorinus in his Miscellaneous History says Socrates and his pupil Aeschines were the first to teach rhetoric; and this is confirmed by Idomeneus in his work on the Socratic circle. . . . .

The significance of the highlighted phrases is that they indicate that the author is writing from the perspective of an outsider attempting to interpret and draw conclusions from and piece together pre-existing sources speaking of the past. The author’s narrative is constrained by the information that has already long been in existence.

Notice especially the caution expressed in the first line: we know that the author is not going to bet his life on the information being true because he tells us that the information is “thought” to be true on the basis of inference from the documents.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that such features in writing are a foolproof indicator of the factualness or genuine historicity of the subject. Obviously such phrases can be invented — and sometimes are invented — for the sake of creating verisimilitude for a fictional narrative. And such a presentation alone does not tell us with complete certainty that the person found in the sources was truly historical.

What we can establish from these literary indicators, however, is that on the face of it the author presents his work as an effort to relay to readers what is purported to be historical; furthermore, the author opens up to readers the means by which they can verify what he writes.

As I wrote in another post recently,

In her book Autobiographical Acts, Bruss formulates a number of interrelated “rules” . . . The rule that applies to this communication process on the author’s side reads:

“Whether or not what is reported can be discredited, . . . the autobiographer purports to believe in what he asserts.”

On the reader’s side, the rule-abiding expectation that the report is true implies a freedom to “check up” on its accuracy by way of appropriate verification procedures. 

In this perspective, the truth claim or autobiography in no sense implies the actual truth of an autobiographer’s statement. (Dorrit Cohn, 1999, The Distinction of Fiction, p. 31, italics original, my formatting)

So it is worthwhile asking why we find no comparable expressions in the earliest gospels, the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. I should say “any of the canonical gospels” since the prologue to Luke and the eyewitness claims in John create special problems that have been discussed in other posts. Moreover, we will see that all four canonical gospels, on the contrary, are replete with perspectives and expressions that indicate fiction.

Biographer #2

read more »

Another Bart Ehrman mis-reading of Earl Doherty’s book

Bart Ehrman makes it abundantly clear to his readers that he has read Earl Doherty’s book, Jesus Neither God Nor Man, and is speaking with the authority of his academic credentials when he asserts that Doherty

  1. ignorantly suggests that Platonism was the only ancient philosophy or world-view at the time of Christianity;
  2. ignorantly claims that the followers of the mystery cults thought like ancient philosophers such as Plutarch.

To anyone who has read Doherty’s book it would appear Ehrman was skimming it in extreme haste or tackling it very late at night and was simply too tired to read more than a few lines here and there. Doherty in fact makes it as clear as day that Platonism was only one of several other major philosophies of the day, and that the adherents of the mystery cults did NOT think like ancient philosophers such as Plutarch.

So why does Dr Ehrman write that Earl Doherty claims the very opposite of what he fully, in considerable detail, explains?

Following are the accusations of Dr Ehrman. I insert the real statements by Doherty that belie Ehrman’s claims. read more »

Scholars undermining scholars on questions fundamental to historicity of Jesus

Zeus seduces Olympias. Fresco by Giulio Romano...

Zeus seduces Olympias. Image via Wikipedia

Here is a stock criticism of the Gospel accounts of Jesus by sceptics generally and mythicists in particular:

The historical Jesus is swallowed up by myth. Look at the framework of his Gospel story: virgin birth, facing Satan in the wilderness, transfigured on the mountain, resurrected from the dead. Without these mythical motifs Jesus is pretty ordinary. 

Here is a stock response from scholars:

Ancient biographical texts similarly contain mythical elements in their framework: the influence of the gods is shown in signs, dreams, etc. Such a mythical framework does not justify our disputing in principle the historicity of the traditions handed down within this framework. (p. 114, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, by Theissen and Merz)

More, the scholars who framed that response to the sceptic added two examples from ancient biographies to illustrate and support their claim that the Gospels are no different from other ancient biographies of historical persons: both alike are said to include mythical embellishments to their narratives.

But take a closer look at that claim. I will quote the scholar’s account of these ancient biographies that supposedly supports their claim that they are similar in this respect to the Gospels (Scholarly claim 1). I will then quote translations of the actual biographies themselves so we can see how faithful that scholarly comparison was (Plutarch and Suetonius in their own words).

After that I quote another renowned biblical scholar himself observant (or secure) enough to face up to the discrepancy between what his peers say about the evidence and what the evidence itself indicates (Scholarly claim 2).

One will forgive me if I sometimes let slip with occasional slivers of cynicism in relation to biblical scholars who present themselves as honest public intellectuals while at  the same time resorting to tendentious claims about the evidence for their scholarly arguments. I conclude with another rant about the failings of too many historical Jesus scholars as truly responsible public intellectuals. read more »

Dog resurrection

My previous post cited a first century mockery of the resurrection theme found in Plutarch’s Moralia. The section is from The Cleverness of Animals, 973-974. The full text is online here.

Still, I believe that I should not pass over one example at least of a dog’s learning, of which I myself was a spectator at Rome.

The dog appeared in a pantomime with a dramatic plot and many characters and conformed in its acting at all points with the acts and reactions required by the text.

In particular, they experimented on it with a drug that was really soporific, but supposed in the story to be deadly. The dog took the bread that was supposedly drugged, swallowed it, and a little later appeared to shiver and stagger and nod until it finally sprawled out and lay there like a corpse, letting itself be dragged and hauled about, as the plot of the play prescribed.

But when it recognized from the words and action that the time had come, at first it began to stir slightly, as though recovering from a profound sleep, and lifted its head and looked about.

Then to the amazement of the spectators it got up and proceeded to the right person and fawned on him with joy and pleasure so that everyone, and even Caesar himself (for the aged Vespasian ^ was present in the Theatre of Marcellus), was much moved.

The same text offers a footnote for the date of this pantomime:

^ Vespasian became emperor in a.d. 69 when he was 60 years old and died ten years later, so that this incident can be dated only within the decade.



(and i seem to recall some scholars seriously claiming that the very idea of a bodily resurrection was utterly unthinkable among these ancients)